Talking to Children About Race and Racism
Vikki Charles, LMFT
Clinical Team Supervisor
Vikki has been with Pacific Clinics for 14 years. As a clinical team supervisor, she is responsible for overseeing mental health therapists, case managers and other clinical employees while ensuring staff provides high-quality and culturally appropriate mental health services, including psycho-diagnostic assessment, group and family therapy. Prior to Pacific Clinics, she worked at a human services agency providing counseling and parent training for families with developmentally disabled children and teens. Vikki received both her bachelor's and master's degrees from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California.
Discussing race and our differences in engaging and relatable ways can help children grow to be accepting and to acknowledge and stand up to racial bias. But where do we begin? Clinical Team Supervisor Vikki Charles, LMFT offers insights on how to start these conversations and where to find resources to continue having open dialogue with children as they grow up.
"The first step in talking to children about racism is to talk about race itself. Let kids know that there is nothing wrong with observing physical characteristics and differences. Emphasize that being different is not weird or bad."
When talking about people's differences, it is important to not make negative judgments. For example, if someone's skin tone, hair or clothing is different, describe the style accurately so they know the correct term – like an afro or sari. Highlighting differences in a positive way helps children develop a positive identity and it helps them think about the world as a diverse place.
Additionally, discussing events in United States' history such as slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and Japanese internment camps, can help them understand why it is important to respect people's differences and why certain words or statements are hurtful.
Not only is history a great way to explain race and racism, but using tools like books and movies help kids engage in the conversation and can visually portray concepts. Share how they can make a positive change by being kind to all people of all backgrounds, as well as listening to and understanding the experiences or feelings of others.
"Keep in mind children's developmental level and ask questions to understand what they are currently thinking, how they are feeling, and what they want to know. Take their lead. If they ask follow-up questions, they are showing you they are ready for more."
As young as six months of age, children are noticing skin color and by the time they are between the ages of two and four, they are internalizing bias. Meaning they begin to believe the stereotypes and misinformation they hear about themselves.
These types of conversations should be ongoing throughout their development. It begins the groundwork for your child to accept and respect everyone's differences and know that they can come to you with questions. As children mature, the answers to questions will become more complex. These are moments to learn what your child understands or is struggling to understand. Also, remember that it is OK to not know all the answers.
Children may notice and point out differences in the people they see. If your child asks about someone's skin tone, you might say, "Isn't it wonderful that we are all so different!" You can even hold your arm against theirs to show the differences in skin tones in your family.
This is the age when it is important to have open talks with your child about race, diversity and racism. Discussing these topics will help your child see you as a trusted source of information on the topic, and know he or she can come to you with any questions. Point out stereotypes and racial bias in media and books, such as villains or "bad guys" in movies. It is OK to talk about more serious topics by making it easier for them to understand. For example, comparing racism to a game of baseball where the team captain is only picking players based on skin color or cultural clothing.
Because of social media and other generational differences, teens can be exposed to more than their parents were at the same age. They may hear, and even use, derogatory words they do not fully understand. Parents should remember that kids, including teenagers, can only take in a certain amount of information at a time. Be direct and say their words are not acceptable and ask where they heard it or what they think it means. It is OK if they become uncomfortable.
Since teens often judge others by their appearance or physical characteristics, it is important to teach them when certain words are disrespectful. Teaching the correct terms like African American or Asian helps teens talk about others respectfully.
It is up to us to teach kids to stand up for what is right. Let them know they should speak up for people who are being mistreated and to challenge the behavior, not the person.
"It is important that children be reassured of their essential worth and be exposed to people who are not like them so they can appreciate the diversity of the world. It is important to share your belief in a brighter future."
Additional Resources for Parents to Address Race and Racism:
- "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn
- "The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas" – Read the book or watch the film together
- "Ways to Make Sunshine" by Renée Watson
- "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You" by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
- "Let's Talk About Race" by Julius Lester and Karen Barbour
- "So You Want to Talk About Race" by Ijeoma Oluo
- "Teaching Tolerance. How White Parents Should Talk to Their Young Kids About Race" by Melinda Wenner Moyer